“The only time I’ll get involved with my youth coaches is if I go to my kid’s youth practice and they’re doing too many systems.”
That’s a message Jeff Blashill believes in even in the professional ranks, too.
Blashill, the Detroit Red Wings’ head coach and a Sault Ste. Marie native, is a big believer in individual skill development, within both the youth and NHL levels.
“The No. 1 way for the improvement of the Detroit Red Wings, to take our ceiling and make it higher, by far the number one way would be the individual development of our players and creating unreal habits in our players so that at the end of the year, we’re awesome at every little detail, our ability to get pucks on the wall, our ability to not have to handle the puck and shoot it on a one-timer, our ability on our edges coming out of the corner,” Blashill told youth hockey coaches during the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League’s kick-off meeting at Joe Louis Arena. “That’ll be the biggest impact. We’re going to start every practice the way football starts. So if you go to a football practice, the quarterbacks coach is working with the quarterback, linemen are working with the linemen. Now obviously, we don’t have the number of coaches they have, but we’re going to start every practice with the forwards working on certain specific skills, the D working on certain specific skills so that we make sure we have the growth of our players. Systems, we can give guys the play on one page in about two weeks. It doesn’t take long to implement systems and get them all to play on the same page. All you want to do is get guys to play on the same page and do it well together. That doesn’t take long at all, so once we’ve created that ceiling of getting five guys on the ice playing together, how can we be better? The only way is by the individual development of our people.
“I heard this line the other day: ‘Nobody came here to watch Pavel Datsyuk forecheck. They came here to watch Pavel Datsyuk do unbelievable things with his hands, his feet and his thinking.’ That’s what makes great players.”
While skill development is a crucial part of coaching, there’s of course more to it than that.
Blashill, in his second year as head coach of the Wings, said it’s ultimately about not only finding balance between practice and games, but also keeping practices fun.
“The only way you get better at stuff is by practicing and you do it over and over and over again. I’m a huge believer in drills, I’m a huge believer in repetition. But within that, you have to be able to keep it fun. They have to have passion and enjoy going to the rink, so I think two things: one, you have to find ways within your practices to make it fun. I utilize small games all the time for that. We do them with the Red Wings almost every day. When I went to Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids players said the thing they enjoyed the most about our practice was the way we utilized small games. And it’s not just for fun; we’re training their habits, we’re developing their skill, but we’re doing it in a setting where they’re competing.
“But what games do in youth hockey, is kids like them. So you have to balance, I believe, the practice with games. My son said to me in the last week probably ten times, ‘When are we gonna play? When are we gonna play?’ So I get that, but you certainly don’t want to just play because then the kids will never get better.”
Food for thought from a homegrown NHL coach.